Christmas Day 2012

Image

Daryl: The cans and bottles aren’t worth that much. You’ve gotta know what you’re looking for.

Image

It’s the magic of Christmas! McKenzie and his pal, homeless and sleeping out front of an abandoned theatre on Granville Mall, wake Christmas morning to find a Christmas tree, with an orange traffic pylon for a star, left especially for them. By who, I asked. Santa, they insisted.

Image

pigeons still need feeding

Image

Megaphone Street Zine vendor tries selling to the distracted Christmas Day crowd.

Image

Robson Street

Image

adopted West End traffic circle

Image

NRA gift shop

Advertisements

revisiting my 2012 new year’s resolutions

Just around this time of year, I think it’s fun to do an inventory of resolutions from the previous New Year’s Eve. It’s a fun way to see where I’ve succeeded and failed, and strategise about what completely impossible and unreasonable commitments I’ll make for the year to come. So, here’s the success/fail breakdown of my 2012 New Year’s resolutions.

  1. I will breathe through my nose more.

Fail: I did this a lot at first, but people said it made me look surly and bellicose. Many said they preferred my slack-jawed, mouth-breather look. They also suggested that I slouch more and use more monosyllabic words. Maybe they just thought I was ahead of the curve.

  1. I will start calling mall security guards “Porky”.

Fail: A real disappointment. The most common response from guards was, “Yes, may I help you?”

  1. I will eat more animals because they taste good.

Fail: Due to lack of funds.

  1. I will refer to Stephen Harper as Prime Minister Walmart.

Success: I did this pretty consistently throughout 2012. In 2013, however, I intend to refer to him as The Chunky Newt Gingrich-Looking Lunchbox Ikea Monkey in Ottawa.

  1. I will steal at least one bus.

Success: I’m keeping it in my apartment building’s bike room.

  1. I will try to incorporate more sequins into my wardrobe.

Success: I now look like Stephen Harper in drag.

  1. I will stop trying to communicate with Mars; I think they’re dissing me.

Success (sort of): Mars called to say that, yes, they are dissing me.

  1. I will use my ThighMaster® more.

Success: It makes a great doorstop and meat tenderiser.

  1. I will start a stable company, selling stables.

Fail: This was just silly.

  1. I will lie and cheat more, because that’s what successful people do.

Fail: Didn’t work for me or Mitt Romney. I may rethink this one in 2013.

a snowman at Christmas

The snowman smiled. He was driving a ’72 Lincoln with the windows down and the A/C on full. He smoked Kools and drank frosty cold cans of beer. The Stones played on the eight track. It was December 24th.

The Voice was speaking to him. It had been all afternoon. It was the same Voice he’d been hearing since he’d opened his bottle cap eyes and walked off of the abandoned lot of his birth. The Voice had told him to steal the car. It was nameless. The one that whispered. Sometimes it even spoke backward, as though in tongues. Now it was saying, “Smoke, drink and drive fast, for snowmen melt sooner rather than later. We have seen the future, and you are not a part of it.”

The snowman accelerated, his wide white frosty foot on the pedal. The speedometer ticking toward 75 mph. Too fast for a snowy, winding rural road. It was 5 pm. The snow-coated dirt farms, billboards and Christmas lit road houses flew by. The crows on road kill flew off in chaotic murders. The tape deck hissed and played Tumbling Dice.

He speeded through a highway intersection where a semi had run into the ditch. The driver waved for the Lincoln to stop, but the Voice said drive on.

The landscape rolled in the gentle way of a prairie. The sky darkened. There were stars and a moon. The Stones tape ended. The snowman pulled it from the deck, and threw it out of the window. He put in John Lee Hooker. Boom Boom came bluesy over the speakers as the snowman observed for the first time an orange glow coming from over the next rise in the road. A glow that distinguished itself oddly from the expanse of cold, dark winter night.

A snowman has no word for dread. And if dread was what he felt in that moment, it was a feeling accentuated by speed, beer and nicotine.

He slowed the Lincoln as the road began to run down into a hollow where a homestead had stood next to a creek for a hundred years. A large white house in flames. He could see, as he approached, a small knot of people standing in the yard, watching. One of them, a woman, ran frantically from one spectator to another, her arms raised. Her clenched fists in her hair, pulling.

“Keep driving,” the Voice said. “We have seen what passes here, and you have no part in it.”

But the snowman slowed even more as he approached the driveway that lead off of the road. He pulled over, killed the engine and turned off the headlights. Then he lit another cigarette. He felt the uncomfortable heat of the blaze.  “That’s one hell of a thing,” he said blowing smoke.

“Drive on,” said the Voice.

The snowman’s hand was going meekly for the keys in the ignition when he saw a man run out of a shed with a ladder. The man placed the ladder against the house beneath a window and began to climb. It was the only window not issuing flame. But as he neared it, there was an explosion of fire. The man fell two stories to the ground.

“Sandra,” the woman yelled louder. “Somebody please do something. My daughter….”

But there was nothing anyone could do. All of the windows and doorways spewed flame. By now, it must have been the same on all sides of the house. They could only watch. The woman took a desperate run at the open door at the top of the porch, but was driven back by the heat. The others pulled her away and held her down. From far off in the distance, there came the faint sound of a siren, still a mile or more away.

The snowman stepped out of the car. He paused and watched. Someone still in the house. A child, perhaps.

“Don’t,” said the Voice.

But the snowman didn’t listen. He walked slowly at first, then faster. Then he began to run toward the house.

“You’ll perish,” said the Voice. “You’ll melt before you even get to the door.”

“But there’s so much of me,” said the snowman. “I may not melt so fast.”

When he got to the people in the yard, he said, “Who? Where?”

They stared back at him, bewildered. A large, white grim-faced man of snow. But the woman stopped struggling and gasped, “Second floor. Third room on the right. My God, she’s only six. She can’t save herself.”

The snowy yard was orange and red, reflecting the colours of the firestorm. Water dripped down his forehead.

“You’re melting even now,” said the Voice.

“There’s enough of me,” the snowman said. The people saw him talking to himself. “I won’t melt all at once. If I move fast, and she is easy to find….”

“I gave you life,” said the Voice. “You’ve no business doing this.”

“Please,” the woman said.

“These people don’t care about you,” said the Voice. “Get in the car and drive. The night is cold and full.”

The snowman stopped thinking about it. He sprinted toward the house, up the stairs and into the flames through the front door. Inside everything glowed. A once decorated tree in a corner of the main room crackled and snapped. The heat was overwhelming. He felt himself melting, maybe faster than he imagined he would. He turned this way and that, and finally saw the staircase leading up. He ran for it, and ascended to the second floor. Third room on the right. There it was. He entered and saw no one. The flames were finished with the window curtains and were running up the walls and consuming the closet door. He felt himself becoming smaller. For the first time in his short existence, he felt weak and disoriented.

“Sandra,” he called. But all he heard at first was the snarl of flame. “Sandra, please. I know you’re scared….”

“Help me,” he heard a little voice say. “Help me.”

“Tell me where you are.”

“I’m under the bed.”

The bed, of course. He saw it smoking, and then turn to flame. Quickly he crouched and reached underneath. There was a tiny hand. He grasped it and pulled. A little girl with singed hair wearing a flannel nightgown came out. She held a smoking, half scorched teddy bear.

“Hey, you’re a snowman,” she said. And began to cough.

He pulled her close, stood up and ran. He was thawing fast. His legs felt weak, and there were still the stairs ahead of them. In the hall, the ceiling crumbled and fell. The girl was a small, coughing ball of humanity in his dissolving arms. The stairs gave way beneath him as he descended, and only by moving over them very fast did he avoid falling through.

The first floor was so fully engulfed, he finally knew he wouldn’t make it. Even the floor glowed a blackish charcoal red. He sprinted for the door as his legs and arms disappeared. What was left of him fell out of the fiery front door and onto the porch.

Frantically, the people in the yard rushed up the stairs. Shielding themselves from the heat, they found the little girl beneath the remaining slush. They grabbed her and escaped the heat, leaving behind some bottle caps, a wet book of matches and a soggy half empty deck of cigarettes.

Her mother cried and hugged her daughter.

“Did you see the snowman,” Sandra asked. Then pointed and smiled at a star falling across the sky.

The sirens of the approaching fire trucks ruined the quiet of the nearly silent night.

“Snowmen are fools,” said the Voice. But no one heard.

lady in the rain

If he had a car, he’d drive away to Jesus. He never had thought of Him as a person, just a destination. A roadhouse with faded awnings and a door on squeaky hinges, out on a protestant prairie where the wind hadn’t let up since the cretaceous. The parking lot a quarter acre of grit blown in off the highway where some rusty pickups park. Just inside the door, there’s a scratchy 78 of Django Reinhardt playing on the jukebox. Everyone at the counter’s smoking, except for a couple farmers who prefer a pinch between the cheek and gum. Everyone’s drinking coffee. Behind the counter, the waitress is on the phone, getting some bad news. Not for the first time. She’s a tough bit of stone, though, hard to move and slow to erode.

This is Jesus in his mind. Where he’d be if he could.

Jesus the place, the ephemeral. It comes to mind in the night, mostly. Three hundred black and white lines of jumpy resolution at 3.00 a.m., long after the medication has stopped working. But the waitress, the one across the counter on the phone, she’s in colour. Slightly over saturated. The pink glow of her uniform follows her as she refills coffee cups. Her face once fresh. She’s slim from hard work and an indifference to food. There are streaks of grey in her hair. Hair that’s been put up and out of the way, though a strand occasionally falls to lie on her cheek. She pushes that back behind her ear. That’s when he sees the pink enamel on her nails, sees that the nail of her left ring finger is broken and looks painful, that the skin around the base of her thumb is a little red and cracked. That her eyes are a little red, too. From lack of sleep, or….

He sees her other places, besides the roadhouse. In the city. Standing very still on the street as crowds move around her. Present but detached. Like a dashboard statuette. Her uniform’s gone. This time of year, round Christmas, wearing a long surplus greatcoat and worn Docs that were once red. When she sees him, she smiles. It’s hesitant. Then she looks away. Traffic passes in front of her and she’s gone.

If he could go there, he would.

***

In honour of Christmas Eve, Elsa Street pins a small Christmas tree broach onto her hand knit tam o’ shanter. She places the hat on her head. Standing before the mirror to adjust it, she sees her mother looking back. She purses her lips and carries on, tugging at the sides of her winter coat. There are worse things than resembling your mother, dressing, walking and talking like her. Worse things, like loneliness. She walks over to the stereo cabinet and removes the needle from a vinyl Perry Como album. The last great crooner is cut off in the middle of No Place like Home for the Holidays. Elsa pulls on her black kidskin gloves and retrieves her handbag and keys from the telephone stand next to her apartment door. It snowed last night. Now it rains. Elsa remembers at the last moment and manages to grab her umbrella from the stand before the door closes.

***

He’s walked in the rain for a century of Christmases, avoiding the eight by six foot room and its swinging bulb. It’s full of ghosts, that room. All of them talking. Some bullying, some merely melancholy and calling out. All of them wanting part of him. So, he walks. The shoes on his feet wet, forever wet. Socks, a vague childhood memory. The crazy, unavoidable beard soaked and populated, like his long dirty hair. His eyes slightly crazed. He stands at a corner, hands in his holy pockets, waiting for the light to turn the correct shade of green. Sometimes this takes a very long time. Sometimes, like now, it’s better to try a different corner. Turning to walk away, he catches sight of her out of the corner of his eye. There she stands. The rain pelting down around her. Radiant, the colours of a summer mural. She smiles. This time, when a truck passes between them, she hasn’t disappeared. She remains, watching him from the opposite corner.

Once, while standing in the sandwich line of the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement, he mentioned her to Sister Daphne. Sister Daphne replied, joyously, that Our Lady is with us always. Meanwhile, at St James Social Services, the mention of her caused the mean, tight fisted Anglicans to insist his meds needed adjusting.

Yet there she was, smiling at him from across Burrard Street. Sister Daphne, the old, bucktoothed cheerleader for Christ, may have been right. But he’d never said she was Our Lady, only a lady. The same one that bites her thumbnail between orders and the shouts of cooks. There in that place called Jesus.

He steps out onto the wet asphalt. Crossing towards her, even though he’s lost track of the light’s current shade of green. In fact, it’s red. The downtown Vancouver drivers blast him with their horns. A bike courier yells and flicks a lit cigarette; a Yellow cab tags him just below the knee and spins him around. But he keeps walking. When he reaches the opposite corner, however, she’s gone. Only a dry spot where she stood, quickly disappearing in the rain. He stands there for several moments. A fat man with shiny shoes and a tight overcoat forces $2 into his hand.

A few blocks away, Elsa Street stands in a shop looking at flat screen TVs. Digital-ready, a salesgirl says. But Elsa’s obvious ambivalence sends her away. Elsa’s trusty Trinitron is obsolete. 1980s analog, fat and boxy.

It’s difficult not to be nostalgic at times like these. Retailers go for the throat. It’s essential to possess the newest things. Who are you if you don’t? She looks down at her prudent shoes. Is she really so old, so out of touch? Was it that long ago that she stood in Woodward’s Department Store holding her father’s hand, marvelling the Christmas bustle from that safe place? Perhaps she was born old. A man in her life said that once. He’d stolen money from her purse, and thought buying clothes at second hand stores made him smarter than everyone else. Elsa thought the frayed collars and missing buttons made him look cheap, and a little stupid. She’d walked away from him and never met anyone else.

Now she takes an escalator down and emerges onto Granville Mall.

She decides to walk west along Robson. At Burrard, emergency services have congregated. A knot of them, police, fire and ambulance, around a filthy, poorly dressed man seated with his back against a plate glass window. Hit by a cab, someone says. His head is rolling on his skinny neck. His eyes make great, all encompassing arcs in their sockets. He’s taking in all of creation, yet he sees nothing at all. Elsa looks down and sees one more tragedy. She feels numbed, then slightly ashamed. She hears a cop say mental male into his two-way. She begins to look away, but not before he, the mental male, makes eye contact. She can’t help but return his stare. A firefighter shoulders through the gathering crowd, nearly knocking the umbrella out of her hand, but she holds her ground. And for the briefest moment, there is an altogether complete silence before the man on the ground yells…

“YOU.”

He tries to stand and says, “You” again. This time holding out a hand. Elsa tries to step back, but she cannot. His yelling has attracted more people. A police woman asks if Elsa knows him. She says no, but is suddenly unsure.

He is standing now. The ambulance crew moves off, allowing the police to move in. He’s gotten to his feet faster than anyone would have believed. “It’s you,” he says. “Don’t go. Please don’t go this time. Stay and talk to me, just once.” A pair of cops step in while a police woman takes Elsa’s arm.

“No,” Elsa says. “It’s okay. I….”

Again, the policewoman says, “Do you know him, ma’am?”

“No.”

“Then move on. He’s delusional. He’s not going stop until you go.”

“PLEASE,” he yells, now holding out both hands. He can hear the scratchy opening bars of Django’s Honeysuckle Rose. It’s coming from somewhere outside of his head. The two officers attempt to restrain him, but there’s very little of him to hold onto and he’s slick with rain. He takes three steps toward Elsa as one of the officers draws a weapon. In unison, the crowd backs off. The officer shouts, “Taser.” The other cops look confused, but there’s no time for discussion. As the emaciated man comes close enough to grasp Elsa’s lapels, there’s a brief hissing sound and he stands frozen with his hands out. Elsa sees the grime beneath his nails, the bulbous knuckles of his starved fingers, and then looks up to see his wet, stunned eyes. The dark network of red around the pale hazel irises. They implore, and are resigned. They tell their entire story in the time it takes to gasp.

He drops to the concrete, and the ambulance team is on him. Rolling him over, checking for vitals, tearing his shirt open. No pulse. Everyone seems surprised. They’re pumping his chest now, creating an airway. Elsa feels a hand on her elbow. It’s a policewoman coaxing her away. No, she won’t go. Inexplicably, she’s been called to witness this thing. To breathe deep the troubling scent of its finality and wrongness. Is he really dead? Is it possible to be so profoundly unwell? To die so easily on such a grey, ordinary day?

Looking up, Elsa sees her reflection in the plate glass.

*****

For a while, he stood observing the gentle but persistent wind move the fields of prairie grass. Planets and stars. Then he walked in off the shaded porch, past the faded Orange Crush and Copenhagen ads, and sat at the counter. These were remembered eyes, he realised. Eyes he’d once looked through before it had all come down to a choice between flat affect or psychosis.

“Coffee, stranger?” the lady in the pink uniform asks. She smiles, and he sees some creases round her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. The kind that don’t come freely; the kind a woman earns.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”

She poures. “Menu?”

“Nah,” he says taking a deck of Players out of his shirt pocket, like it’s the most natural thing in the world to do. “Bacon and eggs, I guess, with biscuits and gravy.”

“That’s a mighty big plate in this joint, mister. You hungry?”

“Awfully,” he says. Then quieter, “Awfully hungry.”

“Cream,” she says, writing up the order.

“Yes, cream.” He could have cream in his coffee. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. Say, you got some nickels?”

He pats his jeans pockets. There’s something there. “Uh huh.”

“Do a girl a favour and drop some in the juke. Nothing worth a damn on the radio this morning.”

Outside, a pickup pulls in. The country twang on the vehicle’s radio dies and both doors slam shut. There’s some good-humoured chatter coming up the stairs. The voices of happy people who meant no harm.

“Gonna be a damn fine day,” she says.

The Angel of 1913

Every year has its angel. And don’t make the mistake of believing each angel is a good one. For in any age, there are only half as many good angels as there might be, and twice as many wicked angels as there should be. And  even this estimation fails to take into account the ambivalent angels that can feebly preside over a year, and in so doing, cause more grief and discontent than any legion of demons.

It is always on the last evening of each year that the new angel assigned to the new year arrives to acquaint itself with the world over which it will hold sway for 365 days. And so it was on December 31st, 1912, when The Angel of 1913 arrived in town.

The streets were cold and foggy, and the snow, so fresh and white two days ago, was hard and grey. The Angel of 1913 sat in Morrey’s Diner with a cup of coffee, having just finished dinner. He smoked a cigar, and watched a river of souls walk past the steamy window.  He wore a freshly pressed suit with a red silk tie.

The Angel of 1913 was notable among angels. Some angels denied that he was an angel at all. A mere imp, some said. Or a fallen angel, perhaps. But The Angel of 1913 didn’t give a damn what other angels said. He ignored the gossip of cherubs.

For a few moments, he’d been aware of his waitress standing at the counter watching him. This happened frequently. Over the millennia, he’d become used to his power over humans. He relit his cigar. The ember sizzled and glowed bright as a furnace. He deeply inhaled a mouthful of smoke, and made a show of it for her. It disappeared into his undying and incalculable lungs, and he exhaled far more than he’d taken in. It was a Vesuvius of cigar smoke and misty wraiths. The waitress shrieked, and disappeared into the kitchen.

He laughed at this, and in doing so, almost missed sight of a rough looking character with a battered backpack walking down the street past the diner window. There was an air of failure and homelessness about the woman. But there was something else as well; something difficult to define that interested The Angel of 1913. And though it was still 1912, and he had little power over the events of the remaining year, he thought he’d use what power he did have to cause some mischief.

He stood up, snuffing out his cigar in the remaining mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. A silver dollar appeared from nowhere in his hand, and he let it drop into the remains of his meal. It made a sloppy plop sound in the congealing gravy that made him smile. He put on his overcoat, and exited.

The Angel of 1913 walked quickly, staying a few paces behind the backpack woman. What a coup it would be to cause pain and suffering before his year had even begun. He finally caught up at an intersection where a traffic cop presided. There, he stopped next to the woman and said, “Hell of a New Year’s Eve, eh?”

“All the same to me,” said the woman, looking straight ahead.

“Sleeping rough, are you?”

“Maybe. You got some spare change to help me out?”

The Angel of 1913 chose that moment to look down at the curb, and the woman beside him did the same. A twenty dollar bill had somehow appeared there without her noticing; it was unlike her streetwise eye to miss such a rare prize. The Angel of 1913 stepped on the bill, and said, “I saw it first.”

“Fine,” said the woman, looking away. She bit her lip as a familiar spasm of failure travelled through her belly. It merged with the ever-present hunger pangs to create a vicious light headedness.

“But I’ll tell you what….”

“What?” said the woman.

“I’ll take my foot off of the twenty, and you can pick it up. It’ll be all yours. That means a couple week’s worth of room and board and a little hooch, all for you.”

“Okay,” said the woman and she began to bend down to take the bill.

“Or,” said The Angel of 1913, not moving his foot, “you can take a chance on what’s in my right hand pants pocket right now. Before you decide, though, I should tell you that I often carry with me far more than twenty dollars – far, far more, my friend – enough, perhaps, to make you comfortable for all of 1913. However, I feel that I’m equally obligated to inform you that I just had a splendid meal that set me back some considerable amount. There’s a chance that I don’t have much of anything in my pocket at all. You can play it safe and take the twenty now, or gamble on what you can’t see. The twenty under my shoe, or all the money, whatever the amount, concealed in my pocket.”

“You’re nuts. Just let me have the twenty.”

“Are you sure, Maxine?”

“Hey, how the hell you know my name?”

“It’s New Year’s Eve, Maxine. A night of magic and miracles. A night when angels might descend form on high, and change the luck of a down-and-outer like you.”

“You a cop?” said the woman.

“I can assure you that I am not,” said The Angel of 1913.

“You want sex?”

“My goodness, no.”

“Because I ain’t for sale.”

Maxine looked down at the twenty dollar bill. It was a lot of dough, by her standards. But maybe this crackpot did have a wad in his pocket. Maybe this was a night when something good could happen. She looked up again at the man standing there, and licked her lips. Then she ran her finger under her nose and sniffed. “You do this stuff all the time, mister?”

“Sometimes,” said The Angel of 1913.

“Based on your experience, what are my chances?”

“Chances are you will always find life to be unpredictable.”

“That ain’t much of an answer.”

“That traffic cop has changed the direction of traffic twice now during our exchange, Maxine. I hope our business here can be completed before it changes again.”

Maxine ran her thumb under her pack’s shoulder strap. The strap had been digging in all day. It was painful, a disheartening pain. A pain that made the night seem colder, wetter, darker. In her mind, she attempted to calculate the impossible. Could she cash in on what was in this man’s pocket? Could he be a good hearted trickster ready to commit an act of charity? She looked him in the face, and The Angel of 1913 smiled a bland, confident smile.

“Okay,” she said. “Forget the twenty. I’ll take the cash in your pocket, every damn dime.” Maxine held out her hand. “C’mon,” she said. “Give.”

The smile on The Angel of 1913’s face grew broader, and he pulled his clenched fist out of his pocket. It could have concealed a hundred dollars, or a thousand. She waited for the fist to open. And when it did, Maxine felt a familiar spasm in her gut. In the palm of the man’s hand was a nickel and two pennies.

“Shit,” she said.

The Angel of 1913 bent down, and picked up the twenty from under his fine shinny leather boot.

“How do I know that’s all you got in your pocket, buddy,” said Maxine.

“I’m a Gentleman,” said The Angel of 1913. “You have my word.”

“Shit.”

“It’s just stupid bad luck. Isn’t it, Maxine?”

“I guess.”

“You made a bet – you took a risk – and you lost. It’s just too bad.”

“Hang on,” said Maxine. “You’re nuts. That wasn’t no bet. I didn’t lose a damn thing. In fact, I’m up seven cents.”

“Well, that is entirely the wrong attitude.”

“Look, mister, you might have all the money in the world and look real swell in your snazzy duds, but you got no business telling me I got a bad attitude. Now fork over my seven cents. I can get a bowl of soup with that.” Her belly growled at the thought.

The Angel of 1913 didn’t like the way this was unfolding. He’d hoped his little trick would have helped to demoralise this woman. Instead she stood there talking about soup, and how his seven cents could buy some. Perhaps he’d miscalculated. He wrapped his tight fist round the nickel and two pennies.

“How ‘bout we try this,” he said. “I’ll….”

“You’ll do nothing, mister,” said Maxine. “Not a damn thing ‘cept hand over my seven cents. ‘Cause if you don’t, I’m gonna scream blue bloody murder and that traffic cop is gonna come on over, and I’m gonna tell him you mistook me for a women of ill fame.”

“Ill fame?” said The Angel of 1913. “Mistook you for…? My dear woman, have you looked in mirror lately?”

“Fine,” Maxine said. She took a deep breath of air, as though she were preparing to yell very loudly.

“Wait,” said The Angel of 1913, who had yet to receive the advantage of all his powers over the world – the powers that would be bestowed on him a tick after midnight on New Year’s Day. Until then, he was restricted to what were, in his estimation, mere parlour tricks, like the conjuring of coins and bank notes, and the correct guessing of people’s names. Dissuading a dutiful cop from rescuing a shabby woman in distress might be beyond him at this point.

He looked across the street at a bank. Its ostentatious clock read 6:29. He was still five and a half hours away from full influence over Earthly goings-on. He had a thought.

“How would you like to double your money?” he said. “Turn seven cents into fourteen. That’s two bowls of soup.”

“I just need one, mister.”

“Well now, isn’t that just the sort of thinking that keeps a good woman down?”

“You’re too tricky for me, fella. But you owe me seven cents. Now give.”

“Okay, okay,” said The Angel of 1913. He held a pacifying hand in the air. And with that hand, he produced another twenty dollar bill out of thin air. “How would you like another crack at one of these?”

Her patience was wearing thin. The cop in the centre of the intersection blew his whistle, and encouraged the traffic through. It occurred to her then to simply walk away. Even if she could get the cop’s attention, she’d been sleeping at missions for weeks. She was grubby, and the sort of person the cops loved to run off the street and put in the clink. The twenty in the man’s hand seemed to glow, however. And a gust of icy wind blew up the sidewalk. The twenty could buy a lot of comfort.

“Alright,” she said. “What’s the gimmick this time?”

“Do you like riddles,” said The Angel of 1913 with a greasy smile.

“Hate ‘em,” said Maxine.

“Well here’s the gimmick,” said The Angel of 1913. “I ask you a riddle. If you answer it correctly, you get the twenty. Answer it wrong, and you still get the seven cents.”

“Okay, fine. Hit me.”

“Alright, listen carefully,” said The Angel of 1913. “The riddle is this: It has hands but no fingers. It tocks but says nothing. What is it?”

“It talks, but says nothing,” said Maxine.

“Yes,” said The Angel of 1913, tapping his well heeled foot. “It tocks but says nothing. Do hurry; I have tickets for the stage.”

“Hmm,” said Maxine, putting her finger on her chin. “What talks and says nothing?”

“That’s the riddle, my dear. Can you answer it or not?”

“Give me a minute.”

“You don’t have forever. We can’t stand here all night. Time’s a wasting. C’mon, c’mon.”

Just then the bank clock across the street rang the half hour.

“Hey,” said Maxine. “Do you mean talk or tock? Like as in tick-tock.”

“Well….” said The Angel of 1913, looking sheepish.

“Which is it?”

“Must I answer the riddle for you?” he said.

“No, but I think you’re cheating. Talk or tock? Fess up.”

“Do you accuse me of cheating?” said The Angel of 1913. “Me? How dare you?”

“Well?”

“Fine. We’ll do another riddle.”

“The hell we will,” Maxine said. “Talk or tock? Come clean.”

Had he miscalculated? Maxine was obviously no great intellect, but she was proving that she wasn’t simple either. Perhaps he should have given the riddle more thought before asking it. But it had worked before. He’d been asking the same riddle since the invention of the mechanical clock. There was something tediously assertive about this awful woman. So, what now? What could be worse than surrendering the twenty dollar bill to this unwashed trollop? What could be worse than conceding? He never had. For a second, he thought about pushing her into traffic. But he was unsure he could get away with it before midnight came. She might put up a fight.

“Well,” said Maxine. “I’m waiting.”

“I’m calling off the bet,” said The Angel of 1913.

“You can’t,” said Maxine.

“I already have.”

“Then give me my seven cents.”

“Absolutely not,” said The Angel of 1913. “You were only to receive the seven cents if you lost the bet. You didn’t lose the bet because I called the bet off. Therefore, no seven cents.”

“You cheated,” said Maxine.

“I most certainly did not,” said The Angel of 1913. “I’m incapable of cheating,” he lied.

“Then I want another chance,” said Maxine. “And this time, I ask the riddle.”

He frowned and thought for a moment. Then he tried to read her mind, but all he got were bits and pieces. A broken vase and burnt eggs. This would be a challenge. He hated challenges. He liked to win. But he couldn’t turn and run now. It would be admitting defeat. It would be undignified.

“Very well,” said The Angel of 1913. “But let’s up the ante, and make it a real bet.” He bent over and picked up a candy bar wrapper from the sidewalk. He closed his fist round it, and when his fist opened again, the wrapper had morphed into a large roll of bills held tight with an elastic band. “There’s ten thousand dollars here. What have you got to put up?”

“Nothin’,” said Maxine.

“You might have something,” said The Angel of 1913, smiling his greasy smile. “Something you may have never considered risking.”

“Mister, all I ever had I left behind in a shack on a dead and dusty plot of land in Manitoba.”

“Then consider this,” said The Angel of 1913. “If you win, if you can ask a riddle I cannot answer, you get the ten thousand. If you lose, I will take from you everything you ever were, and more. There won’t be enough of you left to deliver to the infirmary, or even for a priest to offer last rights.”

“You are crazy,” said Maxine.

Hearing this, The Angel of 1913 reached out and tightly clasped Maxine’s hand. He hissed: “Don’t count on it.” Eyes dead and colourless now, all humour gone from his face. His teeth sharp for a second, like those of a dog. Somehow, from somewhere, a choir of deep lament, a chorus of anguish and defeat. And there was the smell of something burning.

“Let go,” said Maxine, pulling free. She stumbled backward a few steps, and looked at the man. He’d become a grinning dandy again, but the burning smell lingered.

“Since this has turned so serious, mister,” she said. “I have one condition that I want understood. By that clock across the street, you answer my riddle in sixty seconds. That’s one minute, got it?”

“That’s acceptable,” said The Angel of 1913. He smiled, and was suave and self-assured. “Do you have your riddle ready?”

“I think I do,” said Maxine. Her belly growled again. Ten thousand dollars would buy a lot of soup. She could sleep on clean sheets, and take the tram where she liked. Maybe for the rest of her life. “Here we go,” she said. “My riddle is this: Every room I enter is empty, in spite of my presence. What am I?”

“That’s it?”

“Yup,” said Maxine. “And you now have fifty-eight seconds.”

“Why that’s easy, it’s….”

“Fifty-seven seconds.”

“Oh, stop that,” said The Angel of 1913. “It’s annoying.”

“Well?”

“You enter a room and it’s empty, in spite of you being there. Ha, you’re a ghost. That was so easy!”

“Not so fast, mister. It ain’t a ghost. It’s something you don’t even know anything about, so you ain’t never gonna guess it right.”

“Not a ghost? Then, hmm. Then the fog, of course. You’re the fog. The room is empty, but there you are.”

“Nope,” said Maxine.

“Well will you at least tell me if I’m warm?” said The Angel of 1913.

“Not a chance,” said Maxine. “And times runnin’ out.”

“I wonder if you’re not the one cheating this time,” said The Ghost of 1913. “Maybe you’re all riddle and no answer.”

“We’ll see.”

“Something I know nothing about, is it? That certainly narrows it down. But what’s the point if I don’t know about it?”

“Tick-tock, tick-tock,” said Maxine.

The Angel of 1913 was starting to worry. No one had ever asked him a riddle he couldn’t answer. Over the centuries, they’d asked him complex, esoteric riddles. The more complex and esoteric, the easier they were to answer. But this riddle was so simple. Every room I enter is empty, in spite of my presence.

He had a thought; he tried his luck at slowing the clock. But it didn’t work. His full powers on Earth were still hours away. He cleared his mind and focussed.  …empty, in spite of my presence; …empty, in spite of my presence.

Finally, Maxine said: “Five seconds, mister.”

“I have it!” said The Angels of 1913. “I have it, and now you’re mine, you infuriating little bitch. I’ll make you suffer, I will.”

“Two seconds.”

“Air!” he said. ” …empty, in spite of my presence. It’s air. I have you now.”

“Nope,” said Maxine. “You ain’t got jack shit.

“Then what is it?” said The Angel of 1913. “Every room I enter is empty, in spite of my presence. Tell me what it is, or I’ll throttle you!”

“Hunger,” said Maxine. “I told you you knew nothing about it, and I was right. That’s why it didn’t even occur to you.”

“Surely it’s too metaphorical! It was a trick. You tricked me. I’m calling off the bet.”

“Can’t. I played by the rules. Now hand over the cash.”

“Do you know who I am?” said The Angel of 1913 in a last-ditch effort to intimidate. “Do you know how bad I can make things for you throughout the year to come?”

“Worse than what you see now?” said Maxine as she reached out and took the wad of bills from the hand of The Angel of 1913. “I don’t think so.”

She removed the elastic band with a snap, and began to count. There were too many hundreds, fifties and twenties to get through, but she had an idea that it was all there. “Thanks,” she said, and smiled.

The Angel of 1913 watched, slack jawed, as Maxine waited for the traffic cop to wave her through. Then she crossed the street and disappeared into the dark, wet city.